Contentedly weaving through the dense crowd in Jackson Square, Isiah McGill carefully balances his boom box on his shoulder. As eyes follow his brown newsboy cap, sweet jazz melodies waft into the crowd as McGill peddles his musical message.
“Hey, do you guys like jazz?” he happily asks people moving around in the crowd, as he offers them copies for sale of his CDs.
Six months earlier, as McGill flew into town, he felt a jolt in the pit of his stomach. The New Orleans native knew he was home, but was he making the right choice coming back? The 30-year-old McGill, who refers to himself as the “Jazz Man,” had been living in Denver, successfully following his artistic dreams.
Passion defines McGill. He is passionate about music, painting, helping others, and life in general. As such, it is easy to see that he has a positive outlook on life. Music is his primary focus; jazz specifically. Yet, visual arts, such as painting, are a necessary part of his life, too.
Passion for art through music and painting has driven McGill throughout his life, especially as a young boy participating in gifted programs at Thomas Edison Elementary and Lawless High School and then studying art at Rocky Mountain College of Art in Denver. He feels fortunate to be able to work as his own boss, as he makes a living through his artistic talents.
“I like working for myself,” he says. “I like the freedom of creating.”
He also likes making a difference in people’s lives — yet another characteristic he has shown since a young age.
“In the Ninth Ward, man, I saved up my money, I bought a bunch of different lawnmowers, weed eaters, and rakes,” he recalls. “Basically, I would rent those out to my friends and we would literally go out and just cut yards and get my friends jobs, you know? And so I’ve always been that way, in the sense of trying to make the best of whatever situation I’m in.”
Ever since then, McGill says, he has been trying to help others out in whatever way he can. He incorporates this idea into his painting and music. As he puts it himself, “I want to be able to, if I’m painting or my expression in my music … help someone make a good decision, change someone’s life.”
His music has done that as well.
“When I was in Denver, I had a guy, he was one the verge of killing himself. Man, he was sitting in his car, everything inside of me said go over to him and give him the CD and tell him to listen to number 4. … Piano Psalm was the song. And Piano Psalm was written, I was actually crying when I wrote that. I was pouring out, I was going through some things, my kids, the Lord helped me, you know. And so my background, my music is really, there’s gospel influence there. It’s all about, you know, doing God’s work. But anyway, I approached the car and talked to the guy.
“And as we talked, he poured out, the guy started crying. And I realized that OK, it’s not just about me getting my music out here man, you know. Sometimes, you know, it’s different things happening here, man.”
McGill is big on empowering others, especially youth, through encouragement, as reflected in the title of one of his songs, “We Fall (But Don’t Give Up).” He feels his music should heal and help. In his own words, he is trying to create “feel good music” that can act as “therapy” to help with today’s stresses. He says that he never loses sight of his desire to create art that reaches out to others.
As such, his smooth jazz music is not “violent” or “abrasive,” so as to keep a positive outlook. He avoids what he calls “stinking thinking,” or unnecessary negativity. For one thing, he wouldn’t want his mother to hear such music. And McGill cares deeply what his mother thinks: She was a heavy influence on his life and musical career, and his love for her is one of the reasons he returned to New Orleans.
Such a positive attitude has helped McGill deal with the rejection often found by artists and musicians who push their own music.
“I have to deal with a certain level of rejection. Oh my goodness, I mean most artists are just terrified of rejection, and I actually embrace it,” he says. “You know? I look at it as, hey, I’m going to shoot for a no, how many no’s can I get throughout the day? And at the end of the day if I tallied up all my no’s, I know that for a fact that at some point though someone’s going to say yes.”
He takes strength, he adds, from a line he once heard from Martin Lawrence: “Regardless whatever you face in life, comes a point whereas, hey, I’m going to deal with this, and I’m going to ride this puppy … until the wheels come off.”
McGill says that he enjoys being among people while he sells his music. His “direct marketing” approach of playing his boom box in the crowd effectively delivers a free sample to potential customers. He is a people person all the way around.
He takes the artistic gifts that God has given him, sprinkles in his positive attitude, and lives life to its fullest. And New Orleans is richer for it.
Chris Abdo is among students in Dr. Diane Grams’ Research Design Course at Tulane University who have been conducting interviews of people involved in the arts; their stories are published by NolaVie.